As the nineteenth century ended, America suddenly
changed, becoming a small empire after the Spanish-American war, with
Spain ceding Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United
States. Guam and the Phillipines, especially, were strategically
significant, giving America coaling stations for its fleet in the Pacific,
and giving it a close base from which to watch the Yellow Peril of Asia.
But instead of calming fears, it heightens them -- the thought of making
the Philippines, or any of the other territories, states of the union,
becomes a way in which millions of 'dark or yellow-skinned' peoples can
enter the United States, become a corrupting influence, and destroy the
way of life of its citizens. Of course, immigration was again tightly
Then in 1905 fears of the Yellow Peril became all too
real, when the Japanese smashed the Russian fleet and forced them into a
treaty, ending the Russo-Japanese War with a resounding victory for the
Japanese. It was the first time an Asian military power bested a Western
power, and the entire world took notice.
For a while, Japan had
special exemption from immigration restrictions into the United States.
Instead, in 1907 Congress asked that Japan 'voluntarily' stop giving visas
to Japanese trying to emigrate to the states. But by 1917, an 'Asiatic
barred zone' has been created, preventing immigration of any Asian or
In 1922, the U.S. Government further enacted
fear of the Yellow Peril as law, passing the Cable Act, which revoked the
citizenship of any woman who married a foreign national.
II: China ostensibly becomes an ally, and Japan the enemy. The Japanese
are demonized and persecuted, rounded up in internment camps. LIFE
magazine publishes a description of the difference between Chinese and
Japanese, to help budding racists identify who to hate, with such
unbelievable items as "The Chinese have parchament-yellow
complexion...while Japanese have an earthy yellow complexion."
important component of the Yellow Peril myth is the dehumanizing of the
'other.' In this case, the Japanese are seen as 'unable to feel pain the
same way we do,' to be deadened to pain, and by extension to inflict the
cruelest of tortures on his victims. The same was said of the Mongol
hoardes, the same too of San Francisco chinamen, one of whom a doctor
studied and concluded that "their nerve endings are farther inside their
skin than ours...and so more resistant to pain."
With the end of World War II and the resounding defeat of the Japanese, it seemed
the idea of the Yellow Peril had run its course. But another fear was rising to
replace it: the Red Menace.
Russia was an ally during the war, but
afterwards it became clear who the next enemy of American domination would
be. The communist Russians seemed in direct opposition to the beliefs of
America. In fact, it was the threat of communism swallowing up more and
more governments that prompted many of our equal rights laws passed here
in the United States. By making the U.S. more open and more free, it was
hoped that the States would represent a clear alternative to Communism.
But then China fell to Communism, and the Yellow Peril was reborn,
combined with and heightened by the Red Menace. The Korean War, then the
Vietnam War, worked to continue to keep images of the Yellow Peril alive,
as conflict with Asians in foreign wars began to replace competition with
Asians for jobs at home as the primary lens through which America viewed
the far east.
In the 1980's, focus shifted back home again, to the
threat to working class jobs by Japanese competition. The Japanese economy
was booming, and their products outselling American products. Japanese
companies bought numerous American companies, golf courses, and so on.
Americans resisted what they saw as a 'foreign takeover.' Many saw the
corporate buy-outs as a continuation of the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor fourty years earlier. Commercials aired which encouraged people to
buy products 'Made in the USA.' Japanese cars were smashed with
sledgehammers in demonstrations. The threat of the Yellow Peril in America
came full circle, once again imagined as a threat to the stability of
The Yellow Peril has been represented in
American media since its very beginning. From songs, to minstrel shows, to
books, to movies. Perhaps the most famous of these representations comes
not from America but from England, and the story of this character is
explored in the following section.